Mikey Elliott Leads Visual Journeys

The East Oakland artist touches viewers through 3D immersive installations.


Photo by Lance Yamamoto

The abstract color field paintings of Mikey Elliott will grab anyone’s attention with their bright colors, textures, and 3D reflective surfaces.

Elliott lives in East Oakland where he has a painting studio downstairs off a sunny backyard. He shares his home with two other working painters, his 12 year-old white rescue dog named Sparky and a black cat named Banksy, so named for his habit of “spraying his work” everywhere.

Elliott was born in a small suburb of Chicago — Frankfort, Illinois, a town of 6,000 people — and spent the first 20 years of his life there, raised by a hard-working single mother. After high school, he earned an associate of fine arts degree at Joliet Junior College before moving to the West Coast in 2001. He completed a BFA in photography and printmaking at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco in 2005.

“Growing up in the Midwest, my close friends often told me I belonged in California, and the Bay Area seemed a natural fit,” Elliott said, noting he was especially drawn to the wide-open spaces and cinematic beauty of California, namely the ancient towering redwoods, the monolithic granite of the Sierras, and the gracefully rolling hills of the East Bay.

“I’m influenced by nature but also science, love, music, life. The world around me is full of wonder and new things. I love learning, reading, and exploring new ideas. There is just so much out there to discover and experience.” 

He also credits the broad culture and outstanding community of creative people as influences, calling the Bay Area a nexus for imaginative people from all walks of life. “There is a great synergy that occurs when working around and collaborating with other curious innovators,” Elliott said.

His family is a huge influence as well, particularly his mother, to whom he said he owes all his creative talent. She instilled a passion for learning and a thirst for knowledge at an early age and continues to inspire every work he makes. “I’m blessed with an encouraging and loving family and am eternally thankful for them,” he said.

His specific approach to painting is inspired by James Turrell, an artist Elliott admires for his ability to create gorgeous, perception-altering installations that are full of color and transformation. “Working with light and space as his media of choice, Turrell creates environments that lead the viewer on a personal journey,” Elliott explained, a path that Elliott clearly walks in his own work. One personal mentor who stands out as an influence, Elliott said, is Steve Sherrell, a former painting teacher in the Midwest. “His honest and sincere no-bullshit approach to art, art history, and culture really helped shape my perspective of the art world,” Elliott said.

A day in the life of artist Mikey Elliott looks like this: First, he walks Sparky to get the blood flowing, get some fresh air, and clear his head. “He’s my constant companion for the past 10 years. He’s solar powered and loves to bask in the sun to recharge his dog battery,” Elliott said. Next, he surveys his studio for supplies and proper conditions.

Struggling with ADD, Elliott turns off his phone while in the studio to become fully engaged with his creative workflow, saying that social media is a powerful tool for artists that can be an even more powerful distraction. “I put my heart and soul into every piece; it’s a meditative process,” he said.

For surfaces, Elliott uses salvaged or unwanted items such as old furniture, scraps of wood, windows, and other found objects. “With so many renters in the Bay Area, I always find discarded items on the street at the end of the month, and what better way to recycle than to make art out of it,” he said. Elliot also runs his own small printing business doing large-format inkjet printing on canvas, so he occasionally paints on scrap canvas or purchases new canvas to paint on.

To achieve his 3D reflective effect, the artist uses vibrant acrylics in different layers to attain a wide variety of results, often combining a traditional medium with ultraviolet-reactive paints to play with the viewer’s perception of color and hue. This adds a neon glow when shown under colored lighting that gives each piece a different appearance depending on how it is exhibited. Rarely using brushes, he applies a variety of hands-on techniques using diluted or thickened paint for different textural effects. 

Working as a photographer for half his life enriched his understanding of color principles and theory, which informs his painting. Elliott keeps his camera ready during painting sessions to take in-progress reference photos that act as a visual journal or reference guide. In addition to the original paintings, he then exports the photographed art onto paper, canvas, metal, and textiles. “There are limitless possibilities these days with the rise of high-resolution inkjet, dye sublimation, and other printing processes. Seeing my paintings printed on various materials gives them new life,” he said.

When he is ready to show his work publicly, he presents 3D immersive installations where the viewer is surrounded by the art and experiences the work as a cohesive unit rather than individual paintings on a white wall. Elliott covers a space with layers of artworks while working with the realm overhead, hanging pieces from ceilings indoors or outside from trees. He works on five to 20 paintings at a time and typically has two to six shows every month, depending on the season. He often paints live at events and gallery openings in addition to doing his in-studio work. He finds it incredibly fulfilling to see the joy in the audience as they see paintings being made on-site.

“Colors are very strongly embedded in the human emotional spectrum, and I find the psychology of the interaction between art and audience fascinating,” he said.

Elliott was a resident of Alameda for five years before moving to Oakland and continues to manage and curate The Red Door Gallery in downtown Alameda. “It’s part of a community of artists and galleries along with Three Dot Gallery and Studio 23 Gallery that have coalesced to form a hub of creative activity on Encinal between Park and Oak streets,” Elliott said. Working together, the galleries have been able to represent a diverse collection of artists and have built a creative community by co-hosting a monthly art walk every second Friday to showcase some of the freshest talent in the East Bay.

Elliott has shown his work worldwide for over 20 years and exhibits his work regularly in galleries and other venues in Alameda and Oakland, where he has also acted as curator. His work has been featured in several magazines including 7x7, CMYK, and Communication Arts. As a professional photographer, he specializes as a large format digital printmaker and re-toucher. For more information about the artist and his work, visit his website at MikeyElliott.com.